The DNA of Bestselling YA

What makes a Young Adult novel (commercially) successful? That’s a very important question for all YA authors, agents and publishers. Here’s my breakdown of five big-hitters of YA, considering author inspiration, premise, theme, and cultural context (note: I’m just another person writing stuff, and not proclaiming myself as some all-knowing god of fiction).

Warning, there may be some spoilers, but there aren’t many big ones, so read on!

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Everyone’s favorite oblivious-to-love heroine.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins


Suzanne Collins has stated that The Hunger Games is “very much based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur” wherein the Athenians were required to send seven youths into a labyrinth where they are faced with the deadly Minotaur (no mention of Battle Royale, though I would assume that Collins at least saw the name while researching). The catalyst for the story came when Collins was flipping channels and seeing young people compete in reality shows, and other young people dying in real-life wars.

Work and Context

Commercial and mainstream fiction generally relies heavily on the premise. The Hunger Games‘ handles that quite well: the young, poor, and attractive are forced to fight to the death while others watch on their televisions. It’s an awesome hook right from the get-go.

The themes, as described by Collins, concerns the wealth gap between rich and poor, the influence of television on society, the government’s use of hunger as a weapon, and the tragedy of war. Collins wanted people, kids in particular, to note the distinctions between reality television shows and the reality of war. People fighting for their lives isn’t just entertainment when you see it from their point of view (which we should see when we’re put in Katniss’ shoes; we could probably focus on the tragedy of the fight more if these boys weren’t hitting on us and our bow-and-arrow-shooting awesomeness). The themes are somber and important.

Collins’ major series before The Hunger Games is Gregor the Overlander, which features a younger male protagonist in a high fantasy world (miraculous magic over feasible science). Gregor was much more in the vein of Harry Potter, with the protagonists both male and starting at a similar age, people flinging spells, and a problematic prophecy. This is only an inference, but I believe Gregor was written inspired by Potter and sort of an attempt to get into the Potter market. While Gregor has done well, it’s definitely under the shadow of The Hunger Games. Why?

I believe it’s because in writing The Hunger Games, Collins was writing about something she was much more passionate about. After all, her post-Hunger Games advice to young writers is to not only “write about what they know” but to “write about things that they love . . . things that fascinate or excite them personally.” I think that’s what she found in writing The Hunger Games and a major reason why it turned out as it did.

Of course, there’s also the fact that young readers are predominately female, and Katniss Everdeen is a strong female character. What I particularly like about the way Katniss is written is that she is consistent in her intellect. She doesn’t suddenly become smarter or suddenly become an idiot to move the plot forward (she’s always an idiot when it comes to romance–consistency is key!).

Day and June

Day needs a haircut . . .  or a hair tie. Whichever.

Legend, Marie Lu


Day, the “teen rebel” male protagonist has been in Marie Lu’s head since she was fifteen. The idea to pit Day against an equally capable opponent came while she was watching a film adaptation of Les Miserables and she was inspired by the dynamic between Jean Valjean and Javert. It’s also obvious by Lu’s art and background that she is heavily inspired by manga, anime, and video games (particularly the Assassin’s Creed series with all the sexy parkour).

Work and Context

Novels set in a dystopia isn’t a new thing, but YA dystopic novels blew up with The Hunger Games. For those of you who aren’t sure, a dsytopia is essentially a society that is really, really messed up. Both locally and globally, the societies in Legend all seem to fit the bill.

Actually, I personally found it a bit hard to root for anyone to win since the sides represented were dystopias or vague ideals that weren’t concrete enough to form a proper government (in my humble opinion). At any rate, dystopic novels were popular when Legend was released, and they remain somewhat popular right now.

I believe Marie Lu did a great job garnering a fan base with her art on DeviantArt and with the game she made that tied in with her series. The cool thing was that these were done very organically in that she didn’t do them primarily for marketing. She created these tie-in works because it’s what she does for fun. That’s awesome. Related to Suzanne Collins’ advice to write what you love, Lu’s random side projects were labors of love. More importantly, in writing Legend, Lu wrote about what she loved: fighter jets, prodigies, parkour, and her oh-so-precious Day.

Though CBS holds the film rights to Legend, I wonder what will come of it, and if they will actually cast Asian American actors to play the obviously Asian American characters (they’d better start looking for half-Asian, half-White parkour geniuses who can act ASAP . . . good luck).

Twilight Cover

Ripe for biting.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer


Meyer fell asleep and saw a normal looking girl hanging out with a beautiful, sparkly vampire who both loved and wanted to bite the aforementioned ordinary girl. The End.

Just kidding.

I’m sure there’s more to it. Clearly, Meyer must have been exposed to the big vampire works that came before her (now I’ll just list the ones that I can think of that are likely but not necessarily influential to Meyers): Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse (Buffy and Angel–woot!), and L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries.

Work and Context

Vampires have always been pretty cool, but as far as I’m aware, there was a bit of a void in terms of massively popular vampire novels after Anne Rice’s series wrapped up. I’m not a big vampire novel reader, but I am a Buffy and Angel fan. So, for me, there was a big vampire-shaped hole after those TV series ended.

Then Twilight came along.

Sadly, due to my own preferences, Edward Cullen didn’t fill Angel’s shoes. Edward starts the novel as a 90-year-old virgin and gets beat up in the second movie (er, book). While those are easy aspects to make fun of, it’s also what makes Edward awesome.

The draw of Edward Cullen is not just that he’s very, very pretty, but that he is somewhat traditional and chivalrous. It doesn’t matter that he gets beat up (to be fair, he wins his share of fights), what matters is when Edward chooses to fight: he’s generally a pacifist and rather calm, and only fights as necessary to protect the things he loves. That’s why the ladies like him.

What completes the formula is Bella: she’s very ordinary in most aspects, yet Edward is drawn to her by instinct. This makes the reader think, “Hey, this could happen to me” (well, hopefully not the vampire part, just that someone awesome will fall in love with them despite their perceived average-ness). Then again, Bella ends up being biologically unique, so she’s not all that average.

Still, the primary strength of Twilight: ordinary girl, amazing man. Unfortunately, this strength doesn’t do much for the male demographics.

Shailene Woodley as Tris Prior

Shailene Woodley as Tris Prior, leaving her ribs wide open for attack. Four is a bad teacher.

Divergent, Veronica Roth


One factor in Roth’s inspiration for the story of Tris Prior is Roth’s education (school works!). She was studying psychology, including the treatment of phobias and obedience to authority figures which you can clearly see Roth plays with in her series. Factor number two was the song “Sweet Sacrifice” by Evanescence. If you look at the lyrics you might be able to see a fifth of the plot outline for Divergent.

Roth was also interested in divisions into groups (citing the four houses of Hogwarts and the Myers-Briggs personality test among other group-divisions). Finally, she created Tris’ character to be one who “used only as many words as she needed to say what she needed to say,” as inspired by the words of Aeschylus in Agamemnon, “My will is mine . . . I shall not make it soft for you.”

Work and Context

Divergent combines the dystopic youths-in-combat aspect of the Hunger Games with the personality-based group divisions of Harry Potter. I’m sure Roth’s actual hook and tagline is much better than that, but that’s basically the premise, and it’s pretty compelling.

Like Legend (which came later, I think), this series came at a time when YA dystopic novels were very in, and like Collins and Lu’s works, Divergent features a strong female protagonist who has something markedly special about her. Marketability.

In the first book, the reader is presented with a mystery as to how the world became the way it is; why society splits people up into groups in such an unreasonable manner. The mystery is a bit of a hook for the reader to keep on with the rest of the series, and I think it works.

Like some folks, I am not a fan of the way the series wraps certain things up (and I thought it was a risk suddenly having two POVs in the last book when the series had only one for two books), but I must point out there’s a certain contingency of fans who liked the conclusions (and new POV).

Moving on . . .

Last, but certainly not least:

Harry, Ron, and Hermione's response to the film, This is the End.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s response to the film, This is the End.

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling


A lot of Harry Potter came from Rowling’s own life: the suburbs she lived in as a young child with the cupboard under the stairs (not her bedroom) gave birth to the Dursley residence; her later-childhood home in the country spurred her imagination which eventually led to the creation of more magical locales like Hogwarts; and the hardships Harry faces stem from Rowling’s personal life.

Rowling has stated her favorite authors likely influenced her writing. These works range widely from British folklore and mythology and The Iliad through a piece of The Canterbury Tales and The Chronicles of Narnia (and then some).

Work and Context

As far as many people are concerned, there was no such thing as MG and YA novels before Harry Potter came along. With Harry Potter, Rowling almost single-handedly inspired an entire generation (or two) to read. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Before then, readers were few (the proud, and only some were Marines). I’ve met a good amount of people who secretly (and not-so-secretly) sat around on their eleventh birthday waiting for a letter from Hogwarts. That’s saying something.

The premise of Harry Potter was, apparently, difficult to pitch. Rowling had to plow through a good amount of rejection before she finally found a publisher, and it took a bit longer before she started making good money from the series. I’ll admit, I found the first book in the series to be the weakest, which may related to why the series was initially hard to sell.

The strengths of Rowling’s series lies in the readers’ desire to be a part of something special, and the spawns of Rowling’s imagination. Harry is neglected and mistreated by his only known family all his life, but on his eleventh birthday he learns he is of magical lineage and a wizard. He goes off to a secret school of witchcraft and wizardry where he finally finds people who love him. Breaks my heart just writing that summary.

Of course, Harry’s troubles don’t end there. He faces a lot more pain over the following years. However, it’s the later years that solidifies Harry Potter as an awesome YA series (going beyond MG) with darker events and a touch of teen romance.


So, the “rules” for good (YA) writing I’ve come to after writing the above:

1. Write what you know and love. If you’re not passionate about your writing, your reader won’t be.

2. Consider trends and be realistic about it. The market may be supersaturated with genre X before you finish a polished manuscript; but if it’s the only genre you’re interested in writing, by all means, allow rule #1 to trump #2.

3. Realistic character psychology and consistent intellect is important. It’s not cool to have a character who is incredibly selfless suddenly be a selfish jerk absent a strong (implied or express) reason, and it’s really annoying when a character’s IQ suddenly drops or skyrockets to advance the plot.

4. If you’re writing YA, make sure there are “teenage problems” present. This usually means throwing in some awkward romance.

5. The POV character’s love interest should be desirable to the reader. The reader should never wonder why the Joanie loves Chachi (is it wrong that I am making this reference not ever having seen the show?).

13 thoughts on “The DNA of Bestselling YA

  1. Hi. I’ve not heard of Legend until I came across your post. You mentioned
    “Though CBS holds the film rights to Legend, I wonder what will come of it, and if they will actually cast Asian American actors to play the obviously Asian American characters (they’d better start looking for half-Asian, half-White parkour geniuses who can act ASAP . . . good luck).”
    Is the character half-Asian, half-White? Is being bicultural integral to the story? No offense, I believe Asian American actors & actresses are under-represented in film & tv. I just would like to see them more.


    • Yeah, the male protagonist is half Mongolian and half White, and grows up in a decrepit Los Angeles. And, I assume the character of Kaede is of partial Japanese descent from her name. The Elector’s son, Anden, is also described as having some Asian heritage. Overall, the series doesn’t make a big deal out of race, though; it’s not central to the story.


    • Thanks!

      As for that image, it’s actually promotional art drawn by the author; the actual book cover doesn’t feature her manga-style drawing (I assume the publishers thought it’d alienate some readers).


  2. Pingback: YA Characters in a Hunger Games-like Free-for-all | A.D. Martin

  3. I’ve read that Twilight started out as fan fiction to 50 Shades of Grey. In a way I guess the main characters share the same traits – I’m partly guessing here as I haven’t read the Twilight books, only seen the first film, and that is all I need. How she decided to turn them into vampires is anybody’s guess 🙂


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